Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Tim Park's “Reverend” was originally published in the December 8, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
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“Reverend,” by Tim Parks, is a chilly, chilly story. A man recalls his emotional, confrontational, immediate, ambitious, ebullient father and at the same time reflects upon his own need to withdraw from the heat of all that chaos. Thomas is someone who has made a habit of withdrawal, and he enjoys his life as it now is, with its “quiet cold evenings.”

Thomas, a 58-year-old man who is separated from his wife, has recently buried his 90-year-old mother. His mother’s death has provoked in him a surprising desire to recall his father, but his impending divorce may be the true impetus to his father-seeking. He sits at his computer, methodically calling up different stages of life with his father. His purpose appears to be to discover whether he ever had any connection with the man he so studiously tried to avoid.

Thomas had been the good child, the solid student, the one who followed the rules. Around him, the family was in conflict with the father. The brother was rebellious; the older sister got terrible grades. The interchanges were heated. The other two engaged the father; Thomas avoided engagement. Thomas himself, surrounded by all this heat, sees himself as having been “lukewarm.”

Now Thomas is “bivouacked on a metaphorical mountainside, with no one beside him [. . .].” It would be sad, except that he “rather liked his apartment, didn’t he, and his quiet cold evenings.” He has still not signed his divorce papers, but he is not yearning to preserve the marriage either.

Thomas gives us very little of himself. We don’t know, for instance, what it is he likes to do in his quiet evenings, except that we do know he feels unfinished, and we do know that he likes to think. Normally, I am drawn to stories about people thinking. Thomas, however, has a chill about him that puts me off. But perhaps that’s just me. I am wondering if Thomas is somehow a fictional equivalent of Philip Larkin — except that Thomas lacks the piercing economy of mind.

Thomas wonders about the father, whose very big presence belied “an enigma.” The father, an English preacher, was an inspiring leader and confidante, and he could bring souls to the altar. People respected him. There was a passion about him. He had even written a book. At one point he became involved in a charismatic movement that swept the church, and he spoke in tongues.

But Thomas thought of his powerful father as a disappointed man.

Thomas once found his father in the kitchen and heard him mutter, “I suppose it has been all right, in the end, this monogamous life.” Late in his life, sick with brain cancer, the father called the mother a whore, the woman who had joined him willingly in his clerical life and had participated joyfully in his charismatic experiments. There is something very disjointed here.

I felt quite impatient to love this man whom Thomas himself had never been able to love, but somehow, I found the family man unlovable, the man of the cloth a little slippery, and the man as a whole incompletely represented. That, of course, would be the enigma. But I experienced it as disjointed rather than enigmatic.

And I didn’t quite get how a sophisticated London congregation would receive a pastor who was speaking in tongues, even if it was in vogue.

As for Thomas, I found it hard to be interested in a man who as a child wanted to withdraw from his family, and then as an adult, wanted to do the same thing, especially because I had no idea what his family was like. Perhaps it was a repeat of his family of origin. Perhaps it was the opposite.

The story resolves itself around a memory. Thomas recalls going on vacation with his parents after the brother and sister had left home. Father and son go swimming, and the father wants to share the physical experience of the encounter with the water. The son merely wants to get as far away as possible.

Thomas, the 58-year-old adult at the computer, has this realization: “He’s worried that I’ve gone too far and may never make it back.”

This is also what the reader thinks, and what Thomas has realized: that he may be about to withdraw too far. Something about this story is so foreign to my interests and concerns I feel at a loss to appreciate what may be its hallmark — its delicacy. Failure is what I feel, more than anything else, in both men, but Parks has not made me care very much about either man.

But I will say that I found the author’s interview with Deborah Treisman riveting. To me, the story is fascinating when read in combination with the interview.

Parks says:

Let’s say that the distance fiction allows — talking in the third person, declaring from the start, “This is not me, these are not people I know” — enables me to meditate on experiences close to home, on characters like myself, like my father, without being swept away by them.

I felt this very same thing with Brad Watson and “Eykelboom”: that the story might be in some way autobiographical and that the act of fiction allowed the author the distance required to handle the hot coals.

To close, I would remark that my lack of interest in withdrawn men who prize their solitariness probably disqualifies me from writing a fair review of this story. This is idiosyncratic to me; there are probably other readers who will find this story revealing, touching, psychologically apt, or beautifully told, and I hope to hear from them and welcome all their arguments in favor. As for me, however, perhaps it is that very distance that Parks sought to achieve that leaves me cold.

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By |2015-02-03T00:47:59-04:00December 1st, 2014|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Tim Parks|Tags: |11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Trevor Berrett December 2, 2014 at 12:50 pm

    Betsy’s thoughts have been added above.

    I’ve gotta say, I think I might be the reader Betsy is talking about at the end. I generally like Parks’ insights, and this sounds like it might be up my alley. Sadly, I’m just not sure I’ll have time to read it this week, and then I continue to fall behind. Oh well — I still love the conversations you all have going on here.

  2. Majnun Ben-David December 4, 2014 at 6:58 pm

    My full thoughts on this story are posted on my website, but in brief, I’d agree with Betsy’s take. Here’s the end of my review, as it summarizes my take on the story:

    “Reverend” reads to me as more sketch than story, though I should add that I think sketches are fine things. The language is clear, the images concrete, the world of his family well-rendered. Questions are raised about how we find our place in this world, about change versus stasis, and about the nature of relationships. Those inclined to dig deeper would almost certainly be rewarded with some symbolic associations and imagery. There is a lot here.

    But there’s not really a “pop,” either in the language, the events, or the resolution. Instead, moods are evoked and questions raised. We find out rather little about the narrator, save perhaps for the general origin of his “lukewarm” nature, nor do we get much sense of his mother or siblings. We come to know the Reverend, and yet we don’t seem to see him making many decisions. There’s not much agency here, at least on the surface.

    To me, most of the interest of the story lays in its exploration of how religion shaped, mirrored, and sometimes fragmented this family. At those points it drew me in, and became something more than a technically masterful, but static, family portrait.

  3. lotusgreen December 5, 2014 at 7:51 pm

    Something in each of us seems to insist that we progress no further than our parents; wealth, career, even dreams must be matched, caliber by caliber, or some important unacknowledged balance can be undone.

    This is the rule by which Thomas seems to be playing.

    [Thomas’s] father had no time for chatter. Sometimes he barely took time to eat. He was impatient with Mother, too, impatient to be doing. But doing what? Winning souls for Christ. How strange. And how disappointing for him, then, to have failed first and foremost with two of the three souls under his nose.

    Thomas was living in a small flat now, away from his wife, whom he had left some time ago. Away from his children, who were grown up now. They no longer needed him for protection. Only for financial support.Yet he did not feel as though he had really got away. It was as if he had left home to climb a mountain and was now stuck on top of it, bivouacked above the tree line, free, but freezing, with no way forward.

    And what if the template itself is unfixed even if the expectations are not? One’s identity can become shaped more by what is not allowed than by what is. This story hit two uncanny personal spots for me. My in-and-out-of-“treatment”-for-decades sister telling me how she watched our parents get furious with me for my independence, sometimes violently so, and so felt no room to stray from the “normal” for herself.

    And then this year, I found myself suddenly out of the blue cooking my father’s specialty kind of eggs; as I was doing so, I suddenly realized it was his birthday. And five days later I turned the age he was when he died.

    What we know is often a far cry from what we think we know. Someone who was protection but was not there; someone who rarely spoke yet called him back. Both men finish off stranded, one too close to shore, and the other, miles away. Stranded from each other, yes, but maybe from the reader as well.

  4. Betsy December 5, 2014 at 9:48 pm

    Beautifully done, Lily.

  5. lotusgreen December 5, 2014 at 10:38 pm

    Thank you, Betsy! And thanks for remembering to call me Lily as I continue to forget to sign my posts.

    Signed,

    Lily

  6. Sean H December 8, 2014 at 1:46 am

    I wanted this to be a deft meditation on grief or an epiphanic realization of some overlooked aspect of one’s parents and find its universality there, but in the end I agree with Betsy — this one’s a cold fish, replete with all the things that lead people to label the British as stodgy. This is a story very much told (as opposed to shown), and while that way be a workshop cliche these days, I can’t help looking back at this story and wishing Parks had dwelled in some actual scenes, taken the time to truly immerse the reader in a vivified moment or two. The morning swim in the grey sea is nicely conjured, the pain and uncomfortable-ness that religious people seem to feel they owe God or which children feel they owe their parents, but so many other moments and characters in the story are unrealized. I wanted to stop and stay at that holiday camp on pg. 77 with the boys from the reform school, boys who intimidate the good son narrator while his father has no problem talking to them, but Parks instead gives a quick epigraphic few lines about parental hypocrisy and moves on. Even the exorcism of Thomas’s brother later on fails to truly grab the reader by the proverbial lapels. I don’t need every short story to shake me to the bones, but at least grab me.

  7. Ken December 8, 2014 at 4:02 am

    I echo Sean’s sentiments. Reading this felt like a collection of ideas or questions with almost zero dramatic impetus or tension. I never was remotely involved and yet the story probably is heartfelt.

  8. mehbe December 12, 2014 at 9:42 am

    Funny, when I finished reading the story, nearly in tears, the thought crossed my mind that most of the good folks here probably had no idea what it was all about. Which is fine – art that speaks to just a few can still be valuable, I think. I wish I had the energy and focus (not to mention writing ability) to try to talk why it was such an intense experience for me, but I really don’t. Oddly, that fits right in with the nature of the story, doesn’t it?

  9. Betsy Pelz December 12, 2014 at 9:56 pm

    mehbe – so glad to hear from you. You may underestimate the number of people who found the restraint of this story very appealing. So glad you spoke up.

  10. avataram December 14, 2014 at 6:20 am

    I have never read Tim Parks for a couple of reasons. I read this story, and it was as I expected – autobiographical, insipid, passionless, incoherent.

    The reasons for disliking Parks are many – I have just two. One is his extremely unkind review of Vikram Seth’s “An Equal Music” in the NY Review of Books in 1999. Parks is surprised that Seth, a brown man can write a book populated entirely by European musicians, and somehow this makes him feel that the novel is entirely “made-up” or false. Clearly for Parks, the autobiographical is greater than pure fictional.

    As this review was written before google, I guess Parks did not know the novel was dedicated (in an acrostic poem) to Philippe Honore, a French violinist, who was Seth’s partner for many years. Had he known that, he may have never written the NYRB review.

    The second is his translation of Italo Calvino’s “The Road to San Giovanni”. I have been a big admirer of William Weaver’s translations, and bought this, without realizing that it was translated by Parks. Midway through the first essay, realizing the translation was very poor and disjointed, I looked back to the cover page and saw it was translated by Tim Parks. I have simply avoided all Parks translations since then and stuck to Weaver.

  11. Greg December 18, 2014 at 5:51 pm

    The author really hit home with me with the Dad’s delusions / obsessions / manias poisoning the family members’ lives…….I feel so relieved to be free from that oppression as an adult……and thank you Majnun, Betsy and Lily for opening me up to different aspects of this “sketch”!

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